Most Illinois county jail facilities lacked isolation cells for disease, documents show

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Dylan Tiger

A summary of IDOC county jail inspection report answers regarding isolation cells. One report marked both 'Yes' and 'No'. Some jails have not been inspected since 2018.

As the coronavirus outbreak hit Illinois, many county jails lacked a standard cell needed to isolate infected inmates who had a respiratory illness, according to a review by CU-CitizenAccess and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting of annual jail inspections.

The inspections, conducted in 2018 and 2019 by a division of the Illinois Department of Corrections, show that 66 of 92 jails lacked even one isolation cell for inmates that might suffer a respiratory infection such as tuberculosis. 


The Director of Communications and Public Policy for American Civil Liberties Union Ed Yohnka said the conditions of county jails have been a continuing problem in many parts of Illinois.

“County jails, like all detention facilities, often are overcrowded and unsanitary,” Yohnka said in an email. “Those conditions are precisely the type that create an environment for the virus to be spread from person to person.”

Yohnka said that overcrowding does not allow for adequate social distancing and the lack of sanitation can provide places for the virus to reside.  

County jails have little oversight from state

Public Information Officer Lindsey Hess says the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) cannot give directives to county jail facilities, even during a pandemic.

“The management of county jails is the responsibility of each county’s individual sheriff,” she said in an email. “Each county sheriff has the ability to coordinate COVID-19 response with the jail’s medical provider(s) and local health departments as well as the Illinois Department of Public Health.”

Hess did not comment on how medical isolation standards are measured on county jail inspection reports. 

Over the past month, there have been outbreaks of coronavirus in county jails in Illinois, namely in Cook County, although jail officials in Champaign and Vermilion counties have said they have had no cases because of precautions they took as cases throughout Illinois increased. The Cook County Jail has been an epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities with at least 6 deaths.

In Illinois, 150 inmates and 142 staff confirmed cases outside of Cook County have been found within the jail system, including state prisons according to the Illinois Department of Corrections as of April 24. The number is almost certainly an undercount according to Yohnka.

“Given the lack of testing, and the fact that people have tested positive for Covid-19 in 88 of the 102 counties in Illinois,” Yohnka said via email on April 16. “It is likely there have been other jails that have either a staff person or a detainee who has COVID-19.”

The Covid-19 outbreak at the Cook County Jail and other metropolitan jails across the country has received wide attention, but jails in downstate Illinois have come under little scrutiny. In addition, officials at many jails contacted by telephone by CU-CitizenAccess and the Midwest Center about their efforts to combat the virus did not return calls, abruptly hung up, or told reporters to call later with no additional information given. 

A summary of responses to calls made by CU-CitizenAccess and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting staff to Illinois county jails for public health information over two weeks in April 2020.

The sheriff for Champaign County, however, responded with details of the steps he had taken in addition to increased medical screening, cooperation with attorneys to release early, and more. 

“Because we’ve worked to reduce the jail population during this outbreak, we have been able to dedicate a pod to inmates who are showing signs/symptoms of COVID-19 (none yet, thankfully),” Sheriff Dustin Heuerman wrote in an email. “We also are encouraging officers to write notices to appear in lieu of a physical arrest.” 

Many counties adopting safer police practices, but details are hard to get

Individual counties with larger numbers of cases have also taken additional measures. Counties such as Crawford, Fayette and Macon have limited arrests to major cases and simply fining minor crimes, according to news reports.

Minor offenses refer to offenses that are less serious. It can include misdemeanor cases, Class D felonies, and infraction cases, which are of a less serious nature. For example, an offense can be said to be a minor offense if the punishment for it is just fine or warning or imprisonment less than three months.

After a man was released from custody in Lake County jail, he tested positive for coronavirus two days later. In response, jail staff implemented extra safety measures, according to Public Information Officer Chris Covelli:

“New inmates are quarantined for 14 days before being placed into general population,” he wrote in an email. “This is an isolated pod of the jail.  Space has not been an issue thus far, if we reach certain thresholds where this does become a concern, we will look at opening additional isolation pods.”

Kankakee County has even gone as far as giving new inmates a COVID-19 questionnaire before they are placed with the rest of the inmates, according to Chief Deputy Ken McCabe.  

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office also announced they have created an off-site, 500-bed quarantine and care facility for detainees. The department has also moved detainees from double cells to single cells in an effort to increase social distancing.

However, many counties denied public health information to reporters. When asked about written infection control plans, officials from at least six different counties refused to share any details. One reporter was hung up on after introducing themselves and why they called. In some cases, listed phone numbers were actually disconnected lines, officials and sheriffs were on leave and one county only answered questions with a “yes”, “no” or silence. 

Despite the rapidly spreading virus, the treatment inside the jails has been criticized. A federal lawsuit argued that the Cook County Sheriff and his administration weren’t doing enough and hasn’t provided safe living conditions. The lawsuit, however, was overturned. 

From the Cook County Sheriff’s Office statement regarding the lawsuit: 

“Given the unprecedented nature of this global pandemic, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has been and will continue to aggressively do all it can to protect staff and detainees. That includes the mass distribution of PPE, soap and sanitizer, the building of a 500-bed quarantine facility and comprehensive screening and testing.” See the full statement at the bottom of this article.

Nonprofit bail groups, like Chicago Community Bond Fund have used their money to help inmates with low level crimes be released early.

Prior to release, the jail staff verifies that the person leaving the jail has a place to stay that is free of the virus or has a place in which the person can be completely isolated.

Outbreaks in state prisons inform prevention measures

On the state level, Stateville Correctional center was the first in Illinois to see a case. Since then, conditions have gotten worse prompting the governor to release over 450 inmates and bring in 30 National Guard Medics, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. As of April 7, there were 6 additional state prisons on total lockdown.

In order to slow the spread, all correctional facilities and work camps are under administrative quarantine with no visits according to the IDOC website. Video chats and phone calls have continued at normal.

State facilities with confirmed cases of COVID-19 are placed on lockdown, which means there is no movement around the facility except for medical care. Staff who work with individuals in isolation and quarantine, as well as in healthcare units, are wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) and all staff are wearing some PPE, the website states.

According to the Illinois Department of Corrections website, the medical and health services that are provided to all offenders includes: Chronic Clinics, Dentistry, Optometry, Nurse Sick Calls, Doctor Sick Calls, HIV/AIDS peer education, infirmary care, physical exams, emergency services, radiology and mammography/gynecologist in female facilities.

Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department administrator Julie Pryde has said, as of April 24, that no cases have been found in Champaign County’s jails, however plans began in early March to begin prevention measures.

“We are working so hard to keep this out of any congregate living facility,” Pryde said in an email.

The sheriff’s office and members of the court system teamed up with the public health department to discuss enhanced infection control, isolation and quarantine. 

Vermilion County, also void of positive cases in the county jail as of April 24, had planned ahead as well according to Doug Toole of the Vermilion County health department.

“We are fortunate to have officials who planned ahead for situations where someone in custody has an airborne, infectious disease,” Toole said. “We also have officials who take part in our emergency planning meetings and exercises, who are thinking ahead about situations like this.”

FULL STATEMENT FROM COOK COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE REGARDING FEDERAL CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT:

“Given the unprecedented nature of this global pandemic, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has been and will continue to aggressively do all it can to protect staff and detainees. That includes the mass distribution of PPE, soap and sanitizer, the building of a 500-bed quarantine facility and comprehensive screening and testing. The Office has also been working with the judiciary and prosecutors to release vulnerable detainees. We are disappointed the Plaintiffs’ attorneys did not take the time to understand or discuss with us the Cook County Jail’s comprehensive response to this viral pandemic crisis. We talked to the lawyers prior to the filing of this lawsuit to understand their concerns, offered to explain all that our frontline staff and subject matter experts are doing to aggressively protect officers and detainees and to explore a way we could work together to further those efforts. Unfortunately, they instead filed this uninformed suit which reflects a clear misunderstanding of efforts being made to respond to this crisis. In turn, we must expend resources to explain that much of what their complaint requests is already in place. This is counterproductive to our mutual goal and is simply not the way to address the pandemic.”

Pamela Dempsey, Dylan Tiger, Isaiah Baba, and Daria Makhneva also contributed to this report.

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